“I was in prison and you came to Me.”
When people make bad choices and begin to do things that hurt other people we naturally react with efforts to get them to change their choices and to mitigate the consequences of those choices. When a little child runs out into the road we know that it could mean injury or death, so we restrain the child, or give some punishment that will change the child’s behavior by associating running into the road with an unpleasant consequence.
As our children grow and learn, we give them timeouts or ground them. We may restrict their privileges and limit their choices. Some behaviors may bring them fines or detention, and if they go beyond the bounds of civil law they may face the police, a judge or jail.
The Value of Freedom
We want our children to be free, but freedom is one of the hardest gifts to give, because it always carries the risk that someone whom we love may choose to reject, abandon or hurt us. We want our children to be happy, but they may decide to find happiness in things that we find sad or hurtful. Things that give us great happiness may be uninteresting or distasteful to them.
Yet even with these drawbacks, freedom is the greatest gift that we can give to anyone. If we receive every other gift — food, clothing, shelter, friendship, opportunity, power, health — but are lacking only the gift of freedom, all those other gifts become meaningless. Without freedom we cannot live our own life, but only the life that someone else chooses for us, which makes it their life, not our own. If I were to give you $1 million you might be happy to think of all the things you could buy with that money. But if that gift came with the condition that you could only spend the money on things that I want you to buy, it would actually be no gift at all. The money would still be effectively my own, to do with as I please.
Freedom from the Lord
This is how the Lord always gives us his gifts. He gives us the ability to love, to be useful, to be wise, to be happy, and to be a part of the community. Yet to actually receive these gifts we must choose them. We must want love, seek to be useful, strive to be wise, decide to be happy, and join the community. Moreover, we must choose whom and what we will love, how to be useful and wise, what to be happy about, and what community and friends to embrace.
The Lord never forces anyone, because anything we are forced to do does not seem to be ours and anything that does not seem to be ours cannot become part of our love and so be accepted as our own. This is why the Lord is always leading us in freedom, and reforming and regenerating us in freedom. Divine Providence 43
Now genuine love cannot possibly exist except in freedom. At the same time, true freedom cannot possibly exist without love. If we use our freedom to turn away from loving others, we also at the same time are giving up our freedom. Without love, we become prisoners. The Lord gives us the freedom to choose between freedom and slavery, and while He never takes away the freedom to choose, we can enslave ourselves by choosing to love what is evil.
Two Kinds of Freedom
As a result, there are two kinds of freedom. One kind of freedom is the choice to do whatever we want to do, whatever gives us pleasure, without anyone else standing in our way. This kind of freedom is selfish, since we are only thinking of our own desires. In addition, when we are thinking about our own desires, we find it annoying, frustrating and even infuriating when other people make choices that don’t go along with our own. We feel hurt that others have not welcomed our choices, so we want to make them feel pain and rejection.
We hear stories of people who have been in prison. Sometimes it seems very clear that those in prison need to be kept locked away from the rest of society. In other cases we hear of people who are imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs, or without a fair trial, or because of some circumstance beyond their control.
Joseph in Prison
In the story of Joseph, we find a teenager who was sold into slavery not because he had done something wrong, but because his brothers didn’t want him to expose their behavior. Later as a slave he was put in prison for crimes that he did not commit, based on a false accusation by his master’s wife.
The biblical record says that the Lord was with Joseph, even in prison. I imagine that at times Joseph felt the Lord’s care and presence, as when the Lord helped him become the person in charge of other prisoners, and when the Lord gave him an interpretation of the dreams of the Butler and Baker. I also picture him experiencing great loneliness, feeling as David and Jesus did: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In prison, our choices are very limited. We cannot choose where to go, or whom to associate with, what to eat, when to sleep, whether to bathe or what job to do. Yet the physical prison cannot take away our spiritual freedom. While our body is confined by bars, our thoughts can roam the world and even reach to the stars. The walls may stop us from doing what we want to do, but they cannot stop us from dreaming. In jail, even though we are cut off from family, we still have spirits with us. We are influenced by both heaven and hell, and we can choose what kind of thoughts we want to welcome into our minds. When Joseph was in prison, he experienced the same kind of freedom. While he could have given in to thoughts of bitterness and revenge against his brothers and his master’s wife for throwing him into slavery, he instead chose to turn his thoughts to God and to being of service to the others.
Prison bars cannot stop us from choosing between forgiveness and revenge, or choosing between respect for others and contempt, between integrity and betrayal, between kindness and cruelty, and between honesty and deceit. No matter what our outward circumstances are, we can always choose the direction that our thoughts might take. We may welcome some fantasies, while finding others distasteful. It may seem that in prison the choices we make do not have any real consequences. We may choose to eat pizza or steak, and still be given only mashed potatoes, and beans. Yet even in that restricted environment we can choose where our thoughts might go. The choices of how we think have very real consequences for us, because the habits we form for ourselves determines our character. Even when we can’t choose our food, our clothing and our activities, we are still choosing what kind of person we will be inwardly and what kind of a person we will become when we leave jail and this world behind.
There is another kind of jail that is harder to escape, because we may not even realize we are in it. We can become stuck in certain thoughts that limit our freedom even more than prison bars would. Sadly many people who are free to live anywhere they want and do what they desire are still limited by their prejudices so much that they are just as confined as a literal convict. We can become trapped when we base our lives on false thinking.
There are many assumptions that keep us stuck in negative patterns. One of them is an air of superiority. I’m great. I don’t need help. I’m not like those other people. I’m never going to make those mistakes or have that trouble. One of the problems with this arogance is that we bolster it by putting other people down. Look at them. They’re causing the problems! They’re worthless. They will never change.
Another false weakness that keeps us from changing is a negative attitude towards ourselves. I’m no good. I can never change. Nobody likes me. It’s always my fault. It is vital to recognize our mistakes, but not to think that we cannot change. The point of recognizing our bad choices is so that we can adopt healthier options in the future. That won’t happen if we believe that it is impossible for us to change.
One might say that there are two ways the hells keep us trapped. One is by convincing us that we are good enough just the way we are. The other is by duping us with the lie that we are worthless, so there is hope.
If changing ourselves is not an option, then we start looking for other escapes such as trying to control others, wallowing in self-pity, or embracing resentment.
One example of mental jail is what we could call “victim mentality.” Sometimes people hurt us or our circumstances make life feel unfair. We react by making poor decisions. When these things happen it can be helpful to understand what caused the injury and what we can do to prevent it from happening again. If someone is being victimized we may need to stop it, and to make sure that those who are hurt have avenues to remedy the abuse. We must be very clear that recognizing and repairing injuries is necessary.
Having a “victim mentality” is something quite different from having the experience of being victimized. When we get stuck in the role of being the injured party, and are unable to let go of resentments, we lose the perspective to see when the abuse has stopped. Sometimes we blame ourselves when bad things happen to us. We may assume that our suffering is a punishment from God for some mistake that we have done. We feel guilty for being inadequate and deserving of punishment, without ever really understanding what it is that we may have done wrong. Someone who has been bullied for example might feel guilty for somehow offending the bully. A child may feel guilty thinking that she is somehow the cause of her parents’ divorce. It’s not uncommon for a perpetrator of some evil to make the victims feel that they are to blame for the perpetrator’s anger, lust or cruelty. The belief that we are to blame or that we are guilty simply because we are victims can be like a prison. That belief makes us unable to confront the real evil, unable to find healing, and unable to be free.
Another way of getting stuck in a “victim mentality” is by continually shifting blame for our suffering onto others. Certainly there are times when we need to confront people, but when we accuse others not only for their actions, but also for our reactions to those actions, then we lose the ability to take responsibility. When someone causes us harm and we feel resentful, we can take the initiative to change the situation and move on. Or we can live in a fantasy where we imagine that with enough complaining the person who wronged us will somehow reform and start to make us feel good instead. We may even develop feelings of being a martyr, when we come to assume that through our suffering we are somehow earning points or becoming more deserving of reward. Our resentments then become proof that we are more entitled, and the more infractions we collect the more meritorious we get to feel.
We lose sight of the fact that no one else can ever make us let go of our resentments. Letting go of angst is not easy. It takes time and effort. Yet ultimately, it is our own choice to release our grievances, or to hold on tight. No one else can dictate that for us.
Still, it can be hard to make that choice when we fall for the illusion that resentment is part of the solution, not part of the problem. We can actually become addicted to the victim role. We are afraid to take an honest look at ourselves and change, and being the victim may give us a feeling of being a martyr, feeling that the world owes us for all the suffering we have endured. We can take a strange delight in nursing resentments, as they help us feel superior, and distract us from looking at our own deeper issues.
It can be difficult to help those who are prisoners, since we generally cannot free them from prison. The Lord commended the righteous for simply visiting both those who are sick and those who are imprisoned. He does not seem to expect us to be able to actually heal the sick and free the prisoners, but only to visit them. When we do visit people in prison we may feel helpless, being unable to change their situation. Yet one of the most challenging parts of being a prisoner is being cut off from society, and simply by visiting a prisoner we show that they are not forgotten.
Another way we can serve those who are in prison is by helping them see the spiritual choices that are available to them every day. The prison walls do not stop the mind from rising to heavenly thoughts of compassion or sinking to hellish thoughts of revenge. By visiting someone in jail, we may bring not only our bodies into their presence, but our influence, inviting them to join us in a different mental landscape than what surrounds them.
Consider the person who teaches prisoners to read. Illiterate prisoners are doubly trapped, both by their walls and their ignorance. Teaching them to read frees their minds, so they escape their confinement through books. It also can help them move in the direction of a reduced sentence or help them get a job and avoid landing back in jail.
Sometimes prisoners can read well but don’t know how to have healthy relationships with others. Just being a friend who can listen with objectivity can open the door to better ways of relating to others.
When we understand how to help people in prison, we can see that helping people in spiritual detention may not be much different. We can’t simply go into another person’s mind and open all the locked doors. Nor can we help them by saying, “Your thinking is wrong. Go get a different outlook on life and then we can talk.” To visit someone in a mental prison we have to be willing to walk through the grated gates. We have to be able to see things from their point of view and realize that they can’t simply erase all the experiences that are woven into their current world view. Within their landscape, the choices they can make may be more limited than the choices we make with a broader understanding of the world. Even when trapped in misunderstanding, we all are in a balance between cruelty and compassion, and we daily make decisions that bring us closer to one or the other. If someone is bound by false religious beliefs or atheism, we don’t help them move towards compassion by shunning them. Rather we teach compassion by show mercy, by visiting them where they are and listening to their story, grieving their losses and witnessing their progress.
The Lord in Prison
The Lord said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). The Lord sent Moses to lead the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, but also to set us all free from the prison of hellish thoughts. He came Himself and took on a Human form in order to be in our world as one of us. The forces of cruelty captured and fettered Him, yet He fought back with the power of love, choosing to forgive even those who held Him captive. God showed us that love cannot be confined by hatred. Just as prison was for Joseph a doorway to power and freedom, the temptations the Lord suffered with were a doorway taking on Divine Power and providing freedom for the human race. Whenever we are going through struggle and make the same choice the Lord did to favor compassion over cruelty, we are following the same path. We are with Him in that place, and He will say, “I was in prison, and you came to Me.”